The Memo: Tide turns on Kavanaugh

Republicans who were facing a politically nightmarish predicament on Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh have gotten a reprieve from the most unlikely quarter: Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who has accused Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her in the early 1980s.

Ford’s refusal to testify at a special hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday has played into the hands of Republicans, who argue that her story absent congressional testimony is essentially a partisan tactic to delay Kavanaugh’s confirmation.

Ford wants a full FBI investigation into her accusations. Democrats publicly back up her calls.

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Behind the scenes, however, some express dismay.

“I think this has been a mess from start to finish,” said one Democratic strategist who was granted anonymity to speak candidly. This source questioned why Senate Judiciary Committee ranking member Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinFeinstein says she thinks Biden will run after meeting with him Trump judicial nominee Neomi Rao seeks to clarify past remarks on date rape Bottom Line MORE (D-Calif.) kept her knowledge of Ford’s accusation to herself for so long, having first received a letter from her in July. (Feinstein has said it was because Ford was not willing to give up her own anonymity.) 

But the Democratic strategist added, “On top of that, then you have the situation of Democrats saying she would testify, then a couple of days later saying ‘but only if.’ That has not helped their cause.”

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump nominates ambassador to Turkey Trump heads to Mar-a-Lago after signing bill to avert shutdown CNN, MSNBC to air ad turned down by Fox over Nazi imagery MORE has remained relatively muted in his comments on the matter. In brief remarks to reporters before boarding Marine One at the White House on Wednesday, Trump insisted that Kavanaugh had an “unblemished record” and that the situation was “a very tough thing for him and his family.” 

Trump also said, regarding Ford, that he “really would want to see what she has to say.”

A senior White House official reiterated to The Hill on Wednesday afternoon that Trump and his administration “fully support Judge Kavanaugh.”

With much of the Senate expected to vote along party lines on Kavanaugh, the focus has been on the handful of senators in each party who might be expected to buck their leadership. 

Among Republicans, Sens. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsBusiness, conservative groups slam Trump’s national emergency declaration The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Kidney Care Partners — Trump escalates border fight with emergency declaration On The Money: Trump declares emergency at border | Braces for legal fight | Move divides GOP | Trump signs border deal to avoid shutdown | Winners, losers from spending fight | US, China trade talks to resume next week MORE (Maine), Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiThe Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Kidney Care Partners — Trump escalates border fight with emergency declaration On The Money: Trump declares emergency at border | Braces for legal fight | Move divides GOP | Trump signs border deal to avoid shutdown | Winners, losers from spending fight | US, China trade talks to resume next week The Hill's Morning Report — Presented by the American Academy of HIV Medicine — Trump, Congress prepare for new border wall fight MORE (Alaska) and Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeTrump suggests Heller lost reelection bid because he was 'hostile' during 2016 presidential campaign Live coverage: Trump delivers State of the Union Sasse’s jabs at Trump spark talk of primary challenger MORE (Ariz.) are seen as the most likely to flip. 

Among Democrats, Sens. Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyOvernight Energy: Trump taps ex-oil lobbyist Bernhardt to lead Interior | Bernhardt slams Obama officials for agency's ethics issues | Head of major green group steps down Trump picks ex-oil lobbyist David Bernhardt for Interior secretary EPA's Wheeler faces grilling over rule rollbacks MORE (Ind.), Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampOvernight Energy: Trump taps ex-oil lobbyist Bernhardt to lead Interior | Bernhardt slams Obama officials for agency's ethics issues | Head of major green group steps down Trump picks ex-oil lobbyist David Bernhardt for Interior secretary On The Money: Shutdown Day 27 | Trump fires back at Pelosi by canceling her foreign travel | Dems blast 'petty' move | Trump also cancels delegation to Davos | House votes to disapprove of Trump lifting Russia sanction MORE (N.D.) and Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinSenate confirms Trump pick William Barr as new attorney general GOP wants to pit Ocasio-Cortez against Democrats in the Senate Senate poised to confirm Trump’s attorney general pick MORE (W.Va) are seen as the most likely to offer support for Kavanaugh — all three are running for reelection this year in states Trump won by wide margins in 2016, and all three backed his prior Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch.

When Ford first gave up her anonymity at the weekend, Collins in particular seemed to be wavering. She said that if Kavanaugh were shown to be lying in his emphatic denials of Ford’s charges, that would be “disqualifying.”

But since the judge’s accuser has equivocated about testifying, Collins has looked more likely to stay within the GOP fold. 

On Wednesday, she told a radio station in her home state, WVOM, that it would be “unfair” if Ford did not testify before the committee.

“If she refuses to testify, it makes it look like this is a big political stunt,” said GOP strategist and former leadership aide John Feehery, who is also a columnist for The Hill. 

Feehery said that, for figures like Collins and Murkowski, “it’s a little too cute by half. They are trying to be sympathetic to Ford, but she has to be willing to testify. You can’t make allegations from 30 years ago and then not be able to stand up to scrutiny.”

The Democratic strategist lamented what was, from his party’s view, a loss of leverage and momentum.

“What you saw in the beginning was Republicans like Flake, Collins, Murkowski starting to buckle in light of these allegations. Now you are seeing them start to coalesce. It plays right into the Republican narrative that this is all a delaying tactic.”

Still, Democratic leaders in the Senate are remaining four-square behind Ford in their public comments. 

On Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerHouse Judiciary Dems seek answers over Trump's national emergency declaration Mandatory E-Verify: The other border wall Trump says he 'didn't need to' declare emergency but wanted 'faster' action MORE (D-N.Y.) released a statement in which he said, “I strongly support Dr. Ford’s call for an FBI investigation before a hearing is held. An immediate FBI investigation is not only consistent with precedent, it is also quite clearly the right thing to do.”

Some Democratic operatives take a more philosophical view, arguing that it was always a long-odds bet that they could stop Kavanaugh given the math in the Senate, where Republicans hold a 51-49 majority.

Tad Devine, a senior adviser to Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersNewsom endorses Kamala Harris for president Business, conservative groups slam Trump’s national emergency declaration Poll: Sanders, Biden seen as most popular second choices in Dem primary MORE’s (I-Vt.) 2016 presidential bid but speaking in a personal capacity, said that the only chance to stop Kavanaugh was if Ford testified. 

But he stressed that many liberal activists are sympathetic to the predicament in which she finds herself. Ford only went public when it became likely her identity would be uncovered by the media, she has said. She is also reported to have received death threats and to have left her home while the furor continues.

“The Republicans are going to rush this through any possible way they can. The only way to stop it would be for her to testify publicly,” Devine said.

But he added: “That’s the politics. But I don’t think anybody’s going to be critical of a victim of sexual abuse deciding she doesn’t want to go into the lion’s den of Republican senators, if that turns out to be her decision.”

Republicans, meanwhile, who had been on the back foot as recently as 24 hours ago, now believe the controversy might even rebound to their advantage.

Barry Bennett, a senior adviser to Trump’s 2016 campaign, argued that the last-minute furor could ultimately energize Republican voters.

Referring to Ford’s allegations, he said of GOP supporters, “They see it exactly the way I described it: as a purely political play.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.